Monday, December 6, 2021

Eating BIG in Charleston Pt. 2

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties 
- Return to the Holy City 

As the 2021 year comes to an end it's time to share one last trip report from the past calendar year. Today we return to Charleston for the first time since 2016. I really enjoyed the area my last time here and this trip was no different although it was quite different in terms of looks and feel. Charleston was already in a major growth / gentrification stage the last time I was here but this time it was much different. It no longer feels like a sleepy little southern city as massive construction projects have basically transformed the once quaint area into the typical booming US city. It doesn't feel much different from Austin or Nashville etc. Don't get me wrong there's still tons of beauty to be found around this historic town but if you haven't visited in years it'll be much different next time you do. 

Sights from Charleston 

The current population in Charleston sits at around 135,000 people. Which I was surprised to learn is about 10,000 less than Savannah which we visited directly before arriving in Charleston. It was surprising to learn bc Charleston feels much bigger though maybe that's just the local dining scene. Charleston has long been a city that punches way above it's weight when it comes to food and restaurants. It's one of the best hospitality cities in the States and has many similarities to New Orleans but the local cuisine is something completely different. Most of the Low Country's traditional dishes can be traced back to the Gullah Geechie people that have inhabited the area since they were brought over as slaves from West and Central Africa. Learn more about their history and how it all relates to the food that so many visit this region to try by checking out this piece in Travel + Leisure

Pics from Charleston 

We stayed in Mount Pleasant again as it had the best AirBNB we could find. It's not all that far from downtown and since we were roadtripping we had a car. You have to cross the Ravenel bridge to get to Charleston but you can also walk it which is really cool. As nice as the historic part of Charleston is it's overrun with tourists and construction so if you're looking for a nice change of pace from traffic and crowds there's plenty of options around Charleston and Mount Pleasant is just one. There's some good food and most of the areas shrimpers work out of Mount Pleasant so there's lots of seafood mongers too. We both agreed that if and when we returned to the area we would try and stay on one of the many islands that surround the downtown area. Areas like St. James and Daniel Island. We didn't really visit the beaches last time so they were a bit of a surprise this time around. Much better than the ones around Savannah I thought. There's not as many restaurants on these island towns but there are a few and many offer the bounty of fresh seafood in the area. That's what we would really focus on. One example I can give as to why Charleston is such a strong food city is the fact we went to a ton of great spots the last time we were here and I would've loved to go back to all of them but there were many others I had yet to check out. These are the signs of a really good food town. 

Sights from Mount Pleasant

Ravenel Fresh Seafood (Ravenel, SC)

On our first visit in 2016 this was the first stop on the way into town (we drove from South Florida). It would be the first stop on this trip too (we drove from Savannah). This Gullah owned seafood shop is about 20 minutes outside of Charleston and well worth the ride for garlic crab and other Gullah favorites like fried shrimp, red rice, and crab rice. All of which are pictured below. So, so good. If you’re planning a trip to Charleston and not visiting any of the local spots you’re being a bad tourist. It’s a historically Black city and most all of it’s delicious local dishes can be traced back to the Gullah Nation who are ancestors of West African slaves that have inhabited the local South Carolina islands across multiple generations. Fishing and shrimping is a common source of work so both seafood and rice are common ingredients in their home cooking. Ravenel Fresh Seafood is an American classic. 

Crab Rice, Fried Shrimp, Red Rice at Ravenel Seafood 


So it's not often we'll revisit a spot on the same trip, let along go back twice in one trip. So believe me when I say that CudaCo. is one of the best US fish markets I’ve ever been to. They had lots of great looking locally caught product on offer and it was made even better by the fact they serve killer food too. We gorged on fresh locally farmed oysters, tuna crudite, a fried fish sandwich and a fresh fried whole red snapper with a chefs painting of sauces and veg crudités on top of a fantastic soft shell crab sandy making its seasonal debut in the area. Great smoked fish too and I’m sure tons more based on what’s fresh then and there. BYOB at the picnic tables by the creek. Quite the treat. 

Seafood Feasts at CudaCo. 

Rodney Scott's BBQ

Another spot knocked off the bbq bucketlist! Rodney Scott wasn’t in Charleston yet the last time I was down here. I’d considered taking the ride north to the family’s original location in Hemingway but the four hour round trip dip didn’t happen. But it’s always nice to have things to come back for especially in a city as pretty as this (natural beauty and such - not so much it’s history). Anyways BBQ has really blown up over the last decade or so and all those that have come up bc of it are deserving but perhaps none moreso than Rodney Scottt. First off Black Pitmasters are often over looked in the story and history of barbecue when it was their enslaved ancestors that first brought it to the States. Second off the practice of smoking a whole hog is a dying art and Rodney Scott is helping make sure it doesn’t go extinct anytime soon. He’s passing on the knowledge his predecessors gave to him. If you’ve seen the 'Chefs Table' Netflix episode you know the whole story and if not I highly suggest watching it. You’ll most certainly want to plan a visit to Charleston for some whole hog bbq paired here with potato salad, mac and cheese, and beans. Perhaps the finest meat and three I’ve ever ordered up. Loved the vinegar heavy sauce that seeps into the pulled meat. A must stop spot.

Whole Hog Platter at Rodney Scott's BBQ

Little Jack's Tavern 

Every time I travel I keep a list of “must stop spots” usually based on regional treats and uniqueness of menu among other things. So first up let me say that I didn’t have Little Jacks on that list at the start of the trip. But we went to a Black owned wine shop and Little Jacks just so happened to be a few doors down. Normally I would stick to the script but part of that is leaving open a couple meals should something pop-up. Enter the smells coming from this old school bar formerly owned by a boxer turned restaurant group darling. That group owns a few spots in the area and part of that is because of the popularity of the burger at Little Jacks. Named best in America by Bon Appetit circa 2017 I dont take those claims for much but someone else I know personally who cooks for a living said it was maybe the best burger they’ve ever had and bc I hadn’t had it myself I was pretty damn intrigued. 

Double Cheeseburger at Little Jack's 

My thing is I think old school burgers when done well are always better than the chef driven offerings. Personal preference as I prefer limited toppings that let the beef and cheese do their thing as one. I guess that’s what the head chef here prefers too as this is a simple recipe of fresh beef (brisket and chuck) that comes with American cheese and a sunchoke relish that mimics grilled onions. Special sauce on a sesame seed bun rounds it all out. Not cheap at $17 (with garlic fries) and they have a double available for like $4 more but I don’t want an 8 ounce double cheeseburger. I’d prefer a medium rare juicy specimen at that size but the single patty here is perfect meat to bun ratio. In fact it might be that bun that takes this one into memorable status. Personally I think it’s harder to find a perfect bun than it is good quality beef. That’s all this burger is, super high quality ingredients without any type of gimmick. Great fried oysters too served on top a Rockefeller like sauce. Good stop.

Fried Oysters at Little Jack's 


About two doors down from Little Jack's you'll find Maison which is French for house. We walked into here for some drinks and ended up ordering some food after a few. Pictured below are the typical French drinking food favorites of mussels with frites and a plate of pate. Almost always satisfying.  

French Food at Maison 


If you like baked treats a stop at BKeDSHoP is a must. Especially if you like pop tarts. Honestly I never really ate them as a kid but I enjoy when spots like this make them on site. We stopped here twice for them and while I've only had a few "homemade" pop tarts these would take the gold. 

House Baked Pop Tart at BKeDSHoP

Lewis Barbecue 

Charleston has turned into a bit of a bbq hot spot since my last visit. At that time John Lewis was still in Austin. First as the second in line at Franklin Barbecue where he helped Aaron Franklin gain international recognition and then as the head pitmaster at La Barbecue which many claimed to be Austin’s best during his time spent there. Then he moved to Charleston and opened his own spot. Texas style BBQ meaning smoked brisket is front and center and served with pickles, raw onions and often times both pickled onions and jalapeños too. There’s also stuff like Central Texas Sausage aka Hot Guts and queso and such. Lewis is from El Paso originally so yeah it feels like a new school Texas smokehouse for sure. The smell when we entered drew memories of visits to Austin. 

Texas BBQ Platter at John Lewis Barbecue 

I always stumble when it comes time to order at these type of spots bc everything is calling my name. But I stuck with the two Texas originals as far as smoked meat offerings go. Fatty brisket and hot guts which is a style of Smoked Sausage that traces back to the old German and Czech smokehouses of yesteryear like The Southside Market in Elgin (great stop). Exact blends for the hot guts can vary but pork and beef are commonly used and it should be extra snappy with a one of a kind texture. This version hit all those marks but some crackers and pickle juice hot sauce would’ve been a ten. But the glass bottles of Dr. Pepper on offer were a plus. The brisket was exactly as I expected from a guy with a resume like Lewis. Honesty I rarely fuck with brisket outside of Texas bc it’s never as good as it is at the top spots in the Lone Star State. I’d say this is best Texas style bbq I’ve had outside of Texas. So if you love this style of bbq (I do) I’d say it’s more than worth a spot on your Holy City dining itinerary. 

Hot Guts at John Lewis Barbecue 

The Obstinate Daughter (Sullivan's Island)

There's more than 30 sea islands that can be found in and around Charleston. Some are more popular than others but they're all popular for outdoor fun. In the case of Sullivan's Island it's a popular vacation spot that has a bit of a small New England beach town feel. If and when I ever go back to Charleston I might try and stay on one of these islands that are close to the beach rather than close to downtown. If I recall the drive over to The Obstinate Daughter wasn't far from our Mt. Pleasant AirBNB so we rode over for a pizza one night. It was packed and ended up pouring outside sending all of us scrambling inside where there wasn't enough seating plus this was around the height of covid so we just ended up taking one to go so I cant speak for much else but the clam pizza with bacon and red onion was good and the rest of the Southern inspired menu was tempting.

Clam Pie at The Obstinate Daughter 

Chez Noir 

It's hard not to be sucked into Chez Noir. It's a neighborhood bistro like that you would find on the countryside of France. It has no more than 30 seats with a perfect little outdoor patio in the back. We got lunch reservations and sat outside on a sunny spring day. The menu here changes daily with 2 apps, 2 entrees, and 2 desserts on offer daily. So you don't know what you'll be eating when you make your reservation but if you look through their Instagram where menu and pics are posted daily you'll see that it all looks really good. We had the option of a spaghetti with lemon cream sauce or NC trout with serrano ham. Yes to both which made for the perfect meal for two with a bottle of bubbly. 

Spaghetti with Lemon Cream Sauce 

North Carolina Trout with Serrano Ham 

Seewee Restaurant (Awendaw, SC) 

We took a ride north from Charleston along the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway for some fried shrimp. Not just any fried shrimp but your favorite burger scholars favorite fried shrimp. I’ve had this place on my to-do list since I saw George Motz post about it a few years back. It looked like my type of spot and that it was. Plates of fresh fried local seafood served out of an old general store, old floors, walls and all. The shrimp in particular is hyper local from the nearby rivers and streams that flow into the ocean. Snappy and sweet. Sides of fried okra, lima beans, and collard greens.

Meat (fried shrimp) and Three (collard greens, hush puppies, fried okra) at the Seewee Restaurant 

Delaney Oyster House 

There's lots of seafood focused spots in the heart of the historic downtown area which means there's also lots of happy hour options. Delaney Oyster House is attached to a hip new hotel which is directly across the street from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It's a glaring example of the gentrification and development that the city has seen. The happy hour oysters were fresh and on point while an order of crab claws was not. So I wasn't in a rush to try other stuff that wasn't shucked. 

Happy Hour at Delaney Oyster House 

Le Farfalle 

While there’s no scientific formula to point to I think the elevation of pasta in the United States is America’s greatest culinary triumph in the last 20 years or so. When I think back to the pasta dishes served at the red sauce spots more popular in my youth they’re all so damn similar, just in different pasta shapes and sizes. Nothing wrong with dry pasta but that’s all any of them ever served. But these days you can find a fresh pasta spot in almost every US city. Places like Asheville, Denver, Providence, and Portland have spots like Le Farfelle where they offer options like Agnolotti with duck confit, funghi misti, and Parmigiano Reggiano. I love having the option for some agnolotti (Italian dumplings) and also an Italian-American classic like clams with linguini served the old Southern Italy way (no cream). We also had a perfect Panna Cotta with fresh locally grown strawberries for dessert. This was a super satisfying meal in their beautiful outdoor dining courtyard. Add it to your Holy City dining list as a palate cleanser in between all the wonderful Low Country deliciousness.

Clams with Linguine at Le Farfelle 

Duck Confit Agnolotti 

Panna Cotta with local strawberries at Le Farfelle 

Dave's Carry-Out 

I did a repeat visit to Dave's bc my first trip here was something I still think about now and then. Dave's is a super local spot that almost seems out of place these days (Charleston is as gentrified as it gets). Dave is no longer with us but his wife continues to run one of Charleston's most iconic food stops. You're here for the fried shrimp and you'll most likely be taking it go. They do a few other things on certain days but for the most part your option is fried shrimp and maybe some red rice or fries. My visit was at night so fries were the only side option and they're nothing more than a filler. But man that fried shrimp is about as good it gets. The breading is so thin that in some spots it's just not there which makes for an even crunchier product than most. Fresh local shrimp is abundant in these parts and Dave's fry's it better than anywhere in the downtown area. If passing by do not hesitate to stop. 

Fried Shrimp at Dave's Carry-Out 

Workmen's Cafe

While I mostly stuck to seafood and bbq this trip there was bound to be some soul food too. This area is still the best region I’ve ever indulged in such favorites like fried chicken (RIP Martha Lou Gadsden) along with all the regional favorites like fried shrimp and okra soup. The story behind Workmen’s Cafe is that of its chef / owner Angie who opened the locals favorite on James Island with her mother but now runs a one woman show. She does all the cooking basically making her a mom to many locals in the area who come for one of the south’s best meat & threes. The menu changes by day but I doubt you can go wrong with any of it. I didn’t. Fried Chicken with broccoli casserole, mac and cheese, plus my favorite side dish down here - lima beans. All four of the offerings were phenomenal. If this was baseball I’d have hit for the cycle after this meal. I regret not trying the Friday special fried shrimp. 

Meat and Three at Workmen's Cafe

The Grocery

South Carolina spring was in full swing at The Grocery where I had the best plate of soft shell crab I can remember. Cornmeal dusted with a veg remoulade. Perfect fry job and perfectly prepped in terms of cleaning it out. A contender for best bite of the trip. It was also strawberry season down there and a dessert of housemade ice cream served with local strawberries, mint, and crumble was wonderful. Good stuff in between too including Jimmy Red Corn Bread with Duck Liver Mousse, Watermelon Rind Jam, Mustard Seed. Fried Oysters with Deviled Egg Sauce, Bread and Butter Pickles. Roasted Maitake Mushrooms with Sunflower-Parsnip Purée, Chimichurri, Crispy Shallots, Roasted Carrots. Vital Mission Farm Duck Pilau with Duck Confit, Carolina Gold Rice, Butternut Squash, Poached Egg, Pomegranate. All ingredients are local when possible. A Charleston staple going on a decade.

Dinner at The Grocery 

That's it for this trip. See you next time @chibbqking.

Eating BIG in Charleston Pt. 1

Eating BIG in Savannah


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